First work on the TBR was done in the Burma Sector perhaps as early as June 1942. There were two early arriving POW groups. One was British soldiers who had escaped from Singapore but were captured on Sumatra. Known appropriately as the British Sumatra Battalion these 500 were the only British POW to work this Sector. The second group known as A Force consisting of about 3000 Australians arrived in May 42 from Java. Almost all of the POWs who were sent to Burma came from the island of Java. There were approximately 5500 Dutch, 5000 Australian and 700 US POWs. There was, of course, the “Sweat Army”. These native Burmese would eventually number as many as 100,000, but due to frequent desertions, there were never that many at any one time.
One problem in this Sector was a shortage of iron rails. Work proceeded rapidly to lay the foundation for the railway while IJA Engineers were busy in Malaya looting the rails that would eventually be shipped to Burma along with some rolling stock.
Geographically, there were similarities and differences between the two Sectors. Both can be seen as consisting of two different terrain areas: Lowlands and Highlands. The first 80 or so kilometers out of Thanbyuzayat to Apalon were over relatively flat unobstructed terrain. The rise into the Highlands was much more gradual than on the Thai side. But the border area over the next 20 Kms consists of a series of mountain ranges that run north-south, across the path of the Railway. The work crews in this area spent much of their time building bridges over the rivers that run in the valleys between those mountains. The longest bridge is the famous one at ThaMaKam, but the next four biggest are in these Highlands, including the only other iron bridge at Apalon.
Crossing the Burmese Lowlands was easier than in Thailand in that there were no limestone outcroppings barring the way; therefore no cuttings were needed. Also, the rise into the Highlands was more gradual so no long trestles were needed. Work just proceeded slowly because of the rugged terrain and lack of rails.
Even today, this area of Burma has no large population centers. The mountains were rugged, virgin jungle. With no roads nor rivers for supply routes, conditions in these Highlands camps were some of the worst of any on the Railway.
The outbreak of cholera in the Thai Sector near the border brought work there almost to a halt. Fortunately, due to the lack of contact across the border the workers in Burma were spared the worst of the cholera although there were small outbreaks and some deaths. Once the outbreak had subsided, work crews from Burma crossed over to lay the final tracks to the meeting point at Konkoita in Oct 1943.
The Thai Sector of the Railway overseen by the 9th Railway Regiment was much more complicated and considerably longer. Only about 140 of the 415 km length of the Railway was overseen by the 5th Regiment as the Burma Sector. The Thai portion can also be divided into Highlands and Lowlands but it also had a transition area between them in the Hintok area just beyond HellFire Pass.
Even the Lowlands portion had three distinct sections. Thai contract workers began laying track ay NongPlaDuk in September 1942. By November, they had completed the 50km section as far as Kanchanaburi. The entire IJA HQ and support staff then moved from BanPong to Kanchanaburi. Here they faced the first formidable obstacle: the Mae Klong River. It took the engineers some time to locate a suitable crossing point a few kilometers north of the walled city at ThaMaKam where the river bed could support a bridge. Other possible crossing points to the east were too unstable or too prone to flooding. That is why the tracks make a 6 km U-turn near the city. Soon thereafter, a group of British POWs was brought up from NongPlaDuk under the command of British LtCol Toosey. In Jan 1943, a few thousand Dutch were added to that work crew. Compared to all the others, these men enjoyed a relatively benign existence. It is said that only a few dozen died during the construction of the bridges; many due to injuries or mistreatment as opposed to disease or malnutrition. The iron bridge was completed by mid-April. The iron portion had been looted from Java and shipped via Bangkok to be reconstructed at ThaMaKam.
The first true TBR work camp was located at ChungKai. Here, more British POWs (including a large group of officers) were faced with two limestone outcroppings and had to make the first two of many ‘cuttings’. They also built a moderate-size wooden bridge that still today is known as the “Officer’s Bridge”. Once the tracks were laid in this area, most of the men were leapfrogged to camps farther along the trace.
In these early days of 1942, trains were regularly arriving at BanPong. After a brief stay at the transit camp there, the workers would be transported to Kanchanaburi, ferried across the river and taken up the Kwae Noi River by barges to a series of work camps close to the river. Again, the Railway trace was still running over relatively flat open land. Because there were relatively few men and they were close to the river for resupply, the conditions were relatively good and death rates low in this earliest portion of the Railway.
About 50 km beyond ChungKai, the engineers encountered the next major obstacle: the huge limestone mountain at WangPo. The only engineering solution was to build a viaduct that clung precariously to the side of the cliff. By this time the terrain had risen gradually to about 10 meters above the river level. This 400m trestle was said to have taken a few hundred British POWs only a few weeks to complete by mid-April 43. WangPo was literally a turning point for the Railway. It took a turn to the right, inland away from the river, making supply more difficult. About 40 Kms beyond WangPo, the terrain was rising and there was the next limestone outcropping at Konyu. This was to become the infamous HellFire Pass. At 75m by 25m, it is the longest and deepest cutting along the Railway.
This is also the first place where it is well documented that large numbers of romusha worked alongside the Australian and British POWs. Strangely enough for the AUS POWs, construction at HellFire was begun on the 25th of April, the commemorative day for the WW1 invasion at Gallipoli. It was completed at the end of June.
April to May was a period of intense activity. The monsoon season had begun slowing the pace of work. The Engineers were concerned about missing their deadline. Two things occurred simultaneously: 1) The “Speedo” period was begun in which the available workers were forced to perform more on a daily basis working as fast as possible; 2) Singapore was called upon to send 10,000 more workers.
Trains were arriving daily at BanPong, each carrying 5-600 men. These included the ill-fated F & H Forces as well as tens of thousands of romusha; mainly Tamil-Indians from Malaya. There were far too many to transport from the transit camps at BanPong. They were made to walk to their assigned work camps covering 12-20 Kms per day. This trek was a minimum of 150 kms and up to 300 to the camps nearest the border. The mountain at WangPo presented another problem. Even after the viaduct was complete, it was not suitable for pedestrian traffic. In order to reach the work camps beyond it, those travelling from BanPong had to proceed past Kanchanaburi almost to LatYa. At Tadan, there was the only wooden bridge that crossed the Mae Klong River. From there they would trek SW towards the Railway. That trace had swung too far north to be serviced by the boats plying the Kwae Noi. It was at this time, due the growing numbers of mouths to feed and the distances and terrain involved that the supply system reached its limit and broke down. Then came the monsoon rains!
The area of about 40 Kms beyond Kanyu was a transition area known as Hintok. Here largely romusha work crews along with AUS and US POWs build a series of long trestles to lessen the grade for the trains as the terrain rose rapidly into the Thai Highlands. These Highlands were essentially a 150 km-long plateau to the border at Three Pagodas Pass. These last 200 Kms in Thailand were virgin jungle with only the populated area being near a Wolfram mine at TongPhaPum. With no roads nor river access, conditions here were at their worst.
No sooner had F Force and thousands of romusha arrived at the series of camps nearest the border, then cholera struck. The 7000-man F Force (about half British and half Australian) that arrived from Singapore were already in poor health from their time there. Add the 300 Km trek to the Highlands and the cholera that awaited them and work ground to a halt. POWs died by the hundreds, romusha by the thousands!
Once construction was complete in the area, ChungKai was converted to a ‘hospital camp’, but that term was used quite loosely. No real treatments were available. This and other camps farther along were actually death camps were the sickest men were sent to die. It is a miracle and a testament to the military medical staff that any survived. As cholera swept through the Highlands camps, the ‘hospital camps’ there became overwhelmed. Desperate to get work started again, the IJA made the unprecedented decision to evacuate the POWs. But the only way they could go was west into Burma. Leaving behind the cholera cases to die in their camps, about 1200 of the sickest men were ferried by trains to a camp about 50 Kms from Thanbyuzayat called Thambaya. This was an abandoned work camp that was converted to a ‘hospital’ – but also without actual treatments available. About half of these men died there. The huge number of POW deaths from cholera in what was considered the Burma Sector accounts for the large number of British graves (about 1600) at the Thanbyuzayat war graves cemetery even though only about 500 British POWs actually worked in the Burma Sector.
Through super-human and some would say inhumane effort, the last few kilometers of track were placed until the two sectors met at Konkoita about 40 Kms inside the Thai border. [Today, most of this portion of the railway is submerged in the reservoir of the dam on the Kwae Noi River.] On Oct 25th 1943, a solemn ceremony was held to drive the last (bronze not gold) spike and declare the project complete. Locomotive number 5630 is shown in film and photos as the first to traverse the Railway. A coin was struck as a memento for the participants. The senior staff also paid tribute to the approximately 1000 IJA soldiers who died during the construction. Most had died of disease, especially malaria, but a few died in construction accidents.
Having built this overland route in 15 months (2 months ahead of schedule), trains began carrying supplies and men to the Burma Theater of combat. But it was all too little too late! The initial goal of 3000 tons of supplies per day was never met. Best estimates are that barely 1000 tons/day were ever achieved. By early 1944, Allied reconnaissance aircraft had detected the work and bombing to disrupt the flow of supplies was begun. Because much of the track were hidden in jungle foliage, the larger bridges were the easiest targets to find if not hit. Although bombing and strafing along the entire TBR was common, the bridges at ThaMaKam were frequent targets. The wooden bridge was damaged and repaired many times. Finally in June 1945, a British attack dropped three of the spans of the iron bridge and damaged the wooden one beyond repair. The TBR ceased to function. But not before it had contributed to evacuating IJA forces from Burma as the British counter-attacked.
It should also be noted that the Allied POWs were the victims of friendly fire as many bombs missed their intended targets and fell onto the nearby POW housing areas. This happened at NongPlaDuk and ThaMaKam where many POWs were KIA and WIA. A group of Dutch riding on a train as a repair crew were bombed and strafed at Kui Yae (Km 186) in December 1944; killing 26.
Upon completion, the POWs were placed aboard returning trains and carried to ‘rest camps’ at ThaMaKam. This took a considerable amount of time. The largest contingent of US POWs commanded by LTC Tharp were among the last to arrive in May 1944. They had spent much of the post-construction time cutting trees for train fuel. Many of the romusha experienced the same fate before finally being brought to a separate camp at Kanchanaburi. There many of them languished in squalor until 1947. Many more thousands died!
The Allied POWs too continued to suffer from the many maladies they contracted in the jungle. Rest and improved diet helped somewhat, but the many diseases (Malaria, Tropical Ulcer, Dysentery) continued to plague them and claim more lives. Finally, the Japanese established a true hospital in the nearby city of Nakorn Pathom. Properly staffed and equipped with medications and instruments, many POWs owe their lives to this facility. It is said to have had a maximum capacity of 8000 with an average of 5000. Many POWs were still there at the time of liberation in AUG 1945.
Once consolidated to Kanchanaburi, many of the POWs were sent elsewhere. Hundreds went to Japan and Vietnam to continue to labor “in the service of the Emperor”. Many were sent to newly established camps for follow-on projects. A number of airfields were being built to cover the withdrawal of troops from Burma and as a defense against a possible attack by the British into Thailand.
There were two more projects in 1944 that brought perhaps as many as 120,000 new romusha from Malaya; most were Tamil-Indians. Following the completion of the Kra Isthmus Railway and the Mergui Road, these romusha were also moved to Kanchanaburi. The discovery and excavation of hundreds of skeletal remains in 1991 is thought to be those of this second group of romusha.
As widening of the main thoroughfare in Kanchanaburi was being carried out in the early 1950s, thousands of sets of remains were unearthed not far from the present day POW cemetery. These were collected at a local Buddhist temple and re-interred in a common grave on the temple grounds. By 1957, no more remains were being recovered so the temple authorities sealed the grave and erected a marker obelisk but without proclaiming who was buried therein.
In the months post-war, Australian graves registration personnel scoured the jungle areas. Using detailed lists and maps compiled by the military officers, they recovered the vast majority of the 12,000 POWs who died between 1942 and 1945. These were re-interred in three cemeteries established and overseen by the London-based Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Per a decision by the War Department, the 133 Americans were repatriated to their families by 1948.
The term DEATH RAILWAY came to be applied when someone calculated that a life was lost for every sleeper (railroad tie) along the TBR.
LEST WE FORGET